The call for re-imposition of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act and Disturbed Area Act in the valley area by some Kuki groups is getting shriller day by day. They forget, they have also suffered under decades of AFSPA before the Suspension of Operations (SoO) by several armed Kuki militants groups became operational.
The tripartite agreement between the Union Home ministry and Manipur government with 24 Kuki militant groups was signed in 2008. The then state government signed the agreement only in 2008 under pressure from the Centre. The security forces had painstakingly crafted the SoO agreement and it was first signed between the central government and the Kuki militant outfits brought under two umbrella organisations and it was only later on that the state government was brought into the picture. It was the second most important major triumph for the security forces and Centre, after the ceasefire with NSCN-IM and other Naga groups.
A notable change after the ceasefire and SoO was that the signatory outfits got to operate at will and without any hindrance among the civilian population from the security forces, even as the set ground rules were violated over and over again. Forcible taxation and illegal revenue collection went on and not only in Manipur but Nagaland also there were serious objections to it. One difference between the Naga and Kuki groups is that, the Naga groups sometimes get into skirmishes with security forces over territorial rights while such stand-offs are unheard of in the case of Kuki groups.
Coming back to the demand for re-imposition of AFSPA in the valley area, the Kukis or any other group has no legitimacy or moral standing to make such a demand. It was only by sheer grit of the valley populace and the intensity of the anti-AFSPA stir that the government was forced to lift the operation of the Act from some areas of the valley only to spread to the whole valley later on. AFSPA does not differentiate whether one is Meitei or Naga or Kuki. Years of experience tell us that under the shadow of AFSPA, the armed forces operate with impunity and get away with torture, rapes, killings and fake encounters while prosecution is a mirage.
Compared to other Northeastern states, Nagaland was most affected by the AFSPA regime where entire villages were razed to the ground. Assam had also witnessed atrocities and several instances of human rights violations. There were few voices of solidarity to the 2004 movement beyond the state. However, the 2021 incident of civilian killings at Oting of Mon district in Nagaland seems to have ignited the general public in the Northeast to openly voice for its repeal. One may note here that, the 2004 movement was not for withdrawal of AFSPA, but for its repeal.
However, the movement for repeal of AFSPA was mainly concentrated in the valley areas while it was given lip-service by others. After a prolonged movement in 2004 in the wake of the brutal rape and murder of Manorama Devi, the then O Ibobi led Congress government had withdrawn it from seven assembly constituencies of Greater Imphal despite objections from the Centre. There were demands for repealing the Act from the whole of Manipur from various sections of the society as a result of overall improvement in the law and order situation of the state, but it has not moved forward since the 2004 decision. Now, AFSPA and Disturbed Areas Act had been withdrawn entirely from the valley area as covered by 19 police stations, while it has been extended for another six months in remaining areas of the state.
Yes, we know that the defence lobby very much wants the re-imposition of AFSPA in the valley and they are still voicing for it in several forums. But, demanding AFSPA by Kukis in the heat of the crisis is a strange thing and it indicates a lot of things of how the minds of Kuki leaders work and operate. It is the life and property of civilian lives we are talking about.
Time and again, it has been opined that AFSPA is a direct threat to the ‘Right to Life’ both at the national and international forums. One needs to remember that, during the anti-AFSPA stir the demand of the valley population was of its repeal and not only of withdrawal from Manipur. The message then was that, other peoples should not fall victim to the Act and suffer as we have suffered.